Introducing MIDI 2.0

At ADC'19, we will learn more about the upcoming MIDI 2.0 specification. We spoke with MIDI Manufacturers Association members Athan Billias, Mike Kent, Florian Bomers, and Brett Porter about some of the changes and improvements to expect.

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If you've ever created music on a computer, it is likely that you have used the MIDI specification. Created in the early 80s as a protocol for synchronizing musical events in electronic instruments and computers, MIDI has been a staple for musicians around the world.

MIDI's wide usage can also present various challenges - how can the protocol be improved without breaking the functionality of instruments and software utilizing the MIDI 1.0 specification, and how can a consensus be reached on the best way to improve MIDI? We spoke about these questions and more with some of the key contributors to MIDI 2.0. (Interview by Joshua Hodge)

It's amazing to me that MIDI is a protocol that has remained largely the same since it's invention in the early 80s. Can you give us a brief overview of how MIDI became the standard for connecting digital instruments and computers together?

Athan Billias (Yamaha): The early 80’s was a remarkable time in the history of musical instrument technology. The whole music world was transitioning from electronic devices that used control voltages to digital devices that could store preset sounds in a main CPU. The Musical Instrument Digital Interface was developed by a small group companies including Sequential Circuits, Roland, Yamaha and Korg, but quickly became an industry standard.

Actually MIDI has been remarkably resilient and adaptive as the music production landscape has changed over the years. In the 90’s , MIDI Show Control was adopted and the motion picture industry started to use SMPTE Time Code to sync music and film. In the 2000s, as softsynths and digital DJs became popular, MIDI keyboard and pad controllers became the center of music creation and production. In the last decade, we have seen MIDI evolve further with wireless Bluetooth capabilities for phones and tablets, MIDI Polyphonic Expression for increased expressiveness and the rise of Arduino and DIY MIDI devices. The three winners of the Guthman Musical Instrument Design Awards in 2019 were all MIDI controllers so MIDI is still at the center of innovation. You can check out a whole series of articles on MIDI.org at The History of MIDI.

With so many companies using the MIDI 1.0 standard, how did the team go about finding a consensus around the best way to update the protocol, and how long has the team been working on MIDI 2.0?

Florian Bömers (Bome Software): Indeed, at the MIDI Manufacturers Association, we have the goal of reaching full consensus for every part of a new specification. This is a great thing, because the resulting standard will meet the requirements of all the very different member companies.

On the other hand, contentious issues can take a long time to resolve. And we also need consensus with the Japanese counterpart organization AMEI. It's been an interesting ride since we started the work on MIDI 2.0 in 2005! We had to change direction a couple of times. But the major turning point for reaching broad consensus was when we completely redesigned the internal draft specification: fewer initial features, separate independent sub-specifications instead of one monolithic spec, and more focus on seamless integration with MIDI 1.0. The outcome is MIDI-CI as enabler for the announced specifications: Profiles, Property Exchange, and MIDI 2.0 Protocol.

What are the biggest changes that we will see in MIDI 2.0, and when will it be publicly available?

Mike Kent (MIDI Manufacturers Association): The MIDI 2.0 specifications have been designed to add numerous new options to MIDI while always keeping priority on a high level of backward compatibility with existing MIDI devices.

MIDI 1.0 was a monologue, MIDI 2.0 is a dialog. Devices can talk to each other and agree on features that both devices support. This fundamental paradigm shift has opened a whole new world of possibilities.

Profile Configuration and Property Exchange are new options to bring increased auto-configuration. MIDI systems will be easier to use when devices learn about each other and self-configure their connections.

Extended MIDI messages available in MIDI 2.0 will increase musical expression with greatly improved per-note control. Controllers and other parameters operate with far higher resolution.

Optional Jitter Reduction Timestamps will allow much tighter timing of all messages, including notes and the tempo clock.

The core MIDI 2.0 specifications are nearing completion in the MIDI Manufacturers Association and the Association of Musical Electronics Industry. Member companies are testing specification designs with prototypes. When testing is complete and specifications are published, then manufacturers can release MIDI 2.0 products. If testing continues as expected at this time, the first MIDI 2.0 devices are likely to be released in 2020. Initially, some existing MIDI 1.0 products might be updated to add some MIDI 2.0 features. It will take several years for a wider range of MIDI 2.0 products to start coming to market.

MIDI 2.0 was designed to allow for future expansion so there are plenty of free opcodes for new MIDI specifications in the future.

This is the biggest update to MIDI in 36 years, but it also guarantees that MIDI will continue to expand and adapt to new technologies customer needs in the coming decades.

Brett, Can you tell us more about what to expect from the MIDI 2.0 talk at ADC'19?

Brett Porter (Art+Logic): When I joined the group prototyping MIDI 2.0 (before it was even officially called that), I was in the fortunate position where I didn't need to try to get the new protocol working inside of my company's existing product, because Art+Logic doesn't have any products of our own. Instead, I decided to build the kind of tool for development and testing that I would hope existed by the time someone drops a MIDI 2.0 project on my desk. At ADC I'll talk about the tool now known at 'MIDI 2.0 Scope' and the JUCE-friendly MIDI 2.0 message classes I created for it. It's already gotten a fair bit of use from the other developers who've been part of the early prototyping efforts.

We'll also talk about the upcoming MIDI 2.0 conformance testing application that I'm working on now.

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